Durham's Big Meeting

The twentieth anniversary this month of the 1985 Durham Miner’s Gala, the first to be held after the end of the miners’ strike of 1984-85, will be a time for reflection and pride. Hester Barron considers the history and social meaning of the Durham miners’ annual day out.

Ever since the first annual meeting of the Durham miners in 1871, the Durham Miners’ Gala has been noted for its ability to impress and to inspire. The day always starts early as each lodge (the local branch of the union at every pit) processes behind its banner and colliery band to Durham City. The march continues through the city to the racecourse, where platforms are erected, speeches given, a fairground and stalls set up and picnics laid out. In the afternoon there is a cathedral service, and then there is a final chance to meet friends and have a few more drinks before journeying home. The Gala’s value to the mining (and ex-mining) community lies in its feeling of connection to the past, giving a sense of history and belonging

Yet, however unchanging they may appear to be, rituals are invariably affected by the historical context within which they are performed. David Cannadine, writing about ritual in relation to the British monarchy in The Invention of Tradition (ed. Hobsbawn and Ranger, 1983), argued that ritual needs to be considered within its social, political and economic setting, for even if its ‘text’ remains unchanged over time, its ‘meaning’ may change profoundly. Here I shall be looking at how the same kind of rituals were performed at two very different points in the Gala’s history, first during the 1920s and then in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

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